What do you wear when you're looking for a memorable 'fit for a socially-distant outdoor activity? More often than not, it's a brightly-colored set that boasts a fun pattern and easily moves with you. Bobblehaus, a new New York-based label launched by two Chinese-Americans this past spring, ticks those boxes, all while keeping the planet's wellbeing in mind and building a community that embraces interactive ways of understanding multiculturalism.
Abi Lierheimer, the creative brains behind the operation, describes the brand as a marriage between fashion and utility. At first glance, the clothes — which are released in small batches and are inspired by the youth cultures of New York and Shanghai — could be grouped with popular streetwear brands like Champion or Stussy. But when we spoke about the first collection over the phone, Lierheimer made it clear that she doesn't want Bobblehaus to be categorized as streetwear.
"We're more thoughtful than that," she tells me. "We use all of the sustainable fabrics, and also we have a lot of technical utility details."
An outdoorsy upbringing in Colorado that involved everything from skiing to motorcycling is why Lierheimer believes it's essential to make useful, functional clothing. (Design elements like velcro pockets and adjustable sleeves were key features in the label's first offering.) She studied womenswear apparel design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, before logging hours at Coach and Champion. Most recently, she worked in womenswear design at Kith and left her position there in January to work on Bobblehaus full time.
Around two years ago, a friend connected Lierheimer with Ophelia Chen, who was an assistant buyer at Bloomingdale's with a mission to break free of the large retail corporation and launch a clothing line that she described as "borderline absurd." Chen had the business background covered, having studied marketing and economics at Washington University in St. Louis, but she needed someone with fashion design experience to bring her vision to life.
"At that time, I told my friend that I have this amazing idea, and I'm looking for someone with a similar background and is interested in doing something very different and very out there," Chen explains of meeting Lierheimer. "We instantly clicked. We met over drinks at a speakeasy and then two hours later, I was like, 'So, do you want to be my co-founder?'"
Chen, who was born in Shanghai and moved to a small town in Missouri with her family when she was 12, frequently felt her outsider status pronounced in the fashion world, she says: "I saw a lot of things that I wanted to change. I wanted to bring more inclusivity, more empowerment, more positivity, more sustainability, as well as an eco-conscious mindset into the industry."
On Friday, April 12, 2019, Chen quit her job at Bloomingdale's. Two days later, she hopped on a plane to Shanghai to source recycled fabric for Bobblehaus.
Chen spent two weeks, driving up to eight hours a day, in search of a factory willing to work with her. All of them turned her down. She didn't end up securing a manufacturer and a fabric sourcing agent in Shanghai until September, after making a connection with a small production studio over Instagram.
"I went to the studio multiple times a week to see how they produce and to see how they work. The founder is 27 years old and he quit his job at a big, corporate manufacturing system to create a small production room that focuses on emerging designers with no minimum at all," Chen says. "We instantly connected. They believe in our vision and I believe in their ethical production."
The majority — 90% to be exact — of the fabrics used in the Bobblehaus range are either deadstock, recycled cotton or Tencel. Chen and Lierheimer have made it their mission to give back what they use, so even though the Tencel is made out of compostable and biodegradable fibers, the brand donates to an organization to plant 10 trees around the world for every item purchased. (Bobblehaus planted 200 trees in Australia in the beginning of the year to combat wildfires and committed to plant another 1,400 trees this summer.)
Bobblehaus' debut collection launched in mid-March, just as Covid-19 effectively put the world on lockdown. The label initially planned to mark its arrival with a physical pop-up in Soho, but switched to a digital-only launch.
Chen and Lierheimer call their first offering "collection one" to keep it seasonless, though the bold hues and patterns make it perfect for cheery summertime activities: Take an all-over checkered print short-sleeve button-up with a camp collar ($228) and matching drawcord shorts (also $228) that would be perfect for a day spent skateboarding in the park; or a light purple logo cotton crewneck sweatshirt ($148) and sweatshorts ($128) that are ideal for an evening picnic. There are also garments that have the potential to be great fall staples, like a plaid suit jacket ($308) and a casual twill jacket in camel ($268).
With just 38 pieces in total — all of which are priced under $310 — the collection is an edited, genderless, playful version of what we want our quarantine closets to look like: fun, comfy clothes that allow you to really be seen when walking down the street.
But Bobblehaus is just as keen on letting everyone be seen as well as heard. Before even introducing any garments, the brand launched an online space in November for people from all walks of life to share their experiences. Dubbed the "Bobble Journal," the blog invites contributors from around the world to express their feelings and perspectives that might have been hidden from the public growing up. The site started with nine contributors and has since grown to almost 20, with writers based everywhere from Chicago to Amsterdam to Taipei.
In addition to growing the contributor network, Chen and Lierheimer are focused on finding new ways to innovate and make a positive impact.
"We are constantly holding our ourselves accountable and constantly improving," Chen says. "And we hope to continue to do that."